I read a story recently, cited in the Harvard Mental Health Letter, about a man from Liverpool. Every week he played the lottery. And every week he chose exactly the same numbers. One week he forgot to buy his lottery ticket…you know what’s coming next…and that particular week his numbers were the winning numbers. The man was so overwhelmed at the thought of missing out on millions (which, it turned out, wasn’t exactly the case), that he committed suicide. If only he had bought his ticket.
If only. Two little, unimpressive words. Just six letters in all. But put them together and they have incredible power. In fact they have the power to hold you in a kind of emotional gridlock for the rest of your life. And sadly, in some cases, they drive people to taking their own lives.
We all have regrets, whether we care to admit it or not. They can range from the subjects we chose at school to marriage, from career choices to the way we have failed others or failed to live up to our own standards. Regret can take the shape of things we have done or things we have failed to do.
What exactly do we do with regret?
The Bible is thick with people who have had reason to regret, so it’s not as though we are left to try and figure out a strategy for dealing with regret on our own.
Left untouched, regret can have a corrosive influence in our lives. It can undermine any present joy by reminding us of the bad decisions of our past. However, when touched by grace, even regret can yield some unlikely treasures.
Firstly, when regret is touched by grace, it brings about an awareness of our weakness. We are not comfortable with weakness, especially our own! Without grace we are prone to make reckless and destructive decisions.
Peter was a man who knew a thing or two about regret (Luke 22.31-62). He had promised Jesus that he would not only be prepared to go to prison for Him, but would even die for Him. Jesus predicted that Peter would do otherwise and in the event Peter denied the Lord three times. Why did he deny the Lord? He was weak. Circumstances revealed his weakness. And any future regret would remind him of his weakness.
By allowing regret to remind us that we are weak and need grace, we begin to redeem a potentially destructive emotion.
Secondly, when regret is touched by grace, it causes us to acknowledge distortions in our value system. What do I mean by that? Sometimes we carry regret because we think of what we might have been or done had we acted differently in the past. Usually the “might have been or done” is something that would make us look better than we currently feel that we are.
Regret can reveal that we value appearing to be perfect over actually becoming mature. Without grace we might become like the prodigal son. But it is just as possible that without grace we would become like the elder brother. Paul looked back on his faultless – his own word – life (Philippians 3.5), but with no satisfaction. It meant nothing to God. It was simply rooted in his own flesh and not in Christ.
If we can allow regret to revise our value system to reflect God’s value system which prizes maturity more than the appearance of perfection, then we find that grace is really turning around the negative power of regret.
Thirdly, regret that is touched by grace alters our understanding of how much control we have over the world around us.
Research has found that people in Western culture are far more likely to live with regret than people in other cultures. Why? Because in the West we believe we are so free that our choices can create an almost ideal life. People in other cultures do not believe that and often their choices are restricted by family or other cultural considerations. If regret helps us to recall that All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139.16), it is no bad thing. God’s ways are not always our ways.
Finally, regret that is touched by grace causes us to act.
The story of Zacchaeus meeting Jesus illustrates the point (Luke 19.1-10). Zacchaeus was so overwhelmed by the acceptance he found from Jesus that he promised to make amends to those from whom he had extorted money.
It’s not always possible to do a Zacchaeus. However, we can redeem regret by letting the lessons of the past compel us to act differently to those around us in our present.
Even if we can’t do the things that we wish we’d done and it seems to late too do them now, we can still pass on our hard won, sometimes painfully won, wisdom to another generation.